Picture above entitled "Towel and Basin" depicts a large ceramic basin with still water inside sitting atop a pile of slate rocks and partially encircled by a simple white cloth towel.
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
October 21, 2018
Mark 1:1-13; 10:35-45; 14:17-25
Christian. The word seems to be taking a beating lately. It’s one rope in a cultural tug of war going on in our nation and the world that parallels the battle between the weighty rich and the many poor. Perhaps in earlier times, those who were not at either extreme could stand by on the sidelines and observe, content in their own comfort, detached and confident that even though not all was well, at least it was none of their business. Now the urgency of the issues demands participation. If we do not choose an end of the rope, all may be lost. And it is a difficult choice to make. There is a lot at stake. Seemingly the winner will take all, including the rope, and at any cost. So the rope that is called “Christian” is under great tension. Perhaps this is nothing new for the movement that sprung up in the wake of the healer/teacher/provocateur from Nazareth – Jesus. Religious movements have always been coopted by political forces, and the Christian movement is no exception.
The term Χριστιανούς – “Christian” – first occurs in the eleventh chapter of Acts – just at a time when political tensions were heating up between the Roman puppet king, Herod Antipas, and the oppressed people of Judea, Galilee, and Syria. It seems that a new term needed to be coined – perhaps by onlookers of the movement – to identify this diverse and spreading group of Jews and Gentiles that were organizing to assist the people who were suffering from drought and taxation. We should note that the first so-called “Christians” were organized around poverty and climate change. We also should note that the root word of their newly coined name is Χριστοῦ, meaning “anointed.” In the cultural context of the time, the anointed were emperors, champions, prophets, and healers. Knowing what we do about the early Jesus movement suggests that it was an ironic term – but it was embraced by the followers of Jesus. There is little irony today among the powerful who claim the name Christian – who, without shame or chagrin, claim to be anointed, and who uncritically claim to follow the way of Jesus – but who instead trade accusation for forgiveness, deception for generosity, xenophobia for hospitality, fear-mongering for inclusion, and meritocracy for justice.
Christian no longer means Christian.
So, what do we mean when we say we want to invite all to share in this journey that we call Christian? Are we claiming without irony to be anointed? … Do we claim the power that transforms ordinary human beings into authorities with divine mandate? Not to get too pedantic, but at least our mission statement doesn’t claim that. Last week I noted that our mission statement lacks a subject, and I began to suggest something about who we are and who God is to be doing this inviting. The lack of a subject suggests that we are either uncomfortable with or unsure of who we are and who God is. Perhaps that is because the word “Christian” has been tarnished for a long time already. But there is also some appropriate humility in our modesty. We are compelled to include all in our invitation – precariously balancing on the edge between confidence in our identity and the risk of becoming something new by including the other. We too are on the journey – not quite there yet. We are both invited and inviting. We are compelled to share what we are, who we are, whose we are, and what we have been given – even though we suspect that generosity is not a strategy for victory.
It is, I confess, arrogant to suggest that in several hundred words I could define “Christian.” Consider the oceans of ink that have been spilled over several hundred years in the attempt to define “Christian.” It’s a task that will never be complete – and which, I suspect, would be moot if we could manage to be “Christian.” The Gospel of Mark, as I said last week, is one long invitation to discipleship – into the lifelong, never complete discipline of what it means to follow Jesus, to be shaped by Jesus, to become Jesus. Perhaps part of the reason the “way” of Jesus has splintered into so many paths is because there is no single definitive meaning of “Christian.” I, for one, think that is a good thing. It rescues us from hubris.
As I did last week, today I have selected three passages from Mark – three snapshots into Jesus’ teaching, healing, serving demonstration of the path that passes through and into the kindom of God.
First, from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, there is an admission of human frailty and an admonition to repent – to turn in a different direction. But there is also an underlying assumption or even assurance that despite our shortcomings – our “missing the mark” – God’s intent is to seek us out and set us back on the path. We begin with the baptizer John – acknowledged at least by the common people as a prophet – that is, one of the anointed. Was this also ironic? According to the prosperity Gospel, John was hardly a vision of power and glory. And yet, he was a champion for his God and his people. He acted and spoke with a confidence that bordered on foolishness – perhaps a prerequisite for those who are anointed by God. His action was βάπτισμα – immersion – for μετανοίας – about face – for ἄφεσιν – letting go – from ἁμαρτιῶν – missing the mark. The underlying concept is forgiveness for imperfect aim. This imperfection is something that apparently does not saturate us. It can be washed away if we immerse ourselves in God’s grace. The “immerser” says an even more effective purification is to follow. This is the first claim in the earliest Gospel about what “Christian” means. It means to be immersed in God’s grace – an immersion that can quench as well as ignite.
Second, this forgiveness at the beginning calls to mind another expression of forgiveness at the end of the Gospel narrative – in the meal that Jesus adapted and inaugurated – for the forgiveness of sins – the cancellation of missed intentions. But unlike the other synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of Mark doesn’t explicitly make this connection. Repeatedly in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus warns that following him will lead to bitter, painful consequences. He will get burned for his trouble. In Mark’s telling Jesus doesn’t mention forgiveness at the last supper. Instead he practices a kind of preemptive forgiveness. Knowing already who has betrayed his plans and whereabouts, Mark’s Jesus invites all present into his body and blood, his life and his love, his purpose and his destiny. Even Judas, even Peter, even the others who will doze off in his presence. These opening and closing actions – immersion in grace and incarnation in body, baptism and communion – frame Mark’s understanding of discipleship, and thus forgiveness forms bookends around what we mean when we say “Christian.”
Forgiveness is what God does in Jesus Christ. And in Jesus Christ, we too are called to forgive. But that is so hard to do. To say I forgive you releases you from obligation – just as we have been released from obligation. That release will always result in a redistribution of power – sometimes from the less powerful to the more powerful – from the more deserving to the less deserving. Worldly life and values seem to be structured around the idea of merit and worth. Kindom life and values are structured differently. If forgiveness is the “Christian” action in Mark, and discipleship is the “Christian” way of life – which along with forgiveness is paved with generosity, hospitality, inclusion, and justice – then servanthood is the “Christian” posture. From the outset, Jesus has been teaching and practicing solidarity with the least – the least pure and the least powerful. In the moments before Jesus finally turns to face Jerusalem – physically the embodiment of worldly life and values – two of his senior lieutenants, anticipating some kind of political coup, lobby him for two senior positions in his administration – on his right and his left. Imagine Jesus’ frustration. Here is how Ched Myers describes Jesus’ response:
“Jesus explains wearily that leadership in the sovereignty of God is not appointed executively; it is achieved only through an apprenticeship of the cross. The dialectic between power and powerlessness here is ironic. Jesus can guarantee that his disciples will suffer, but he cannot grant their request to rule. Indeed, in this story, it will not be disciples who end up n Jesus’ right and left, but two rebels – at the crucifixion. Mark’s caustic tone peaks in Jesus’ subsequent teaching:
“’You know how it is among the ‘so-called’ ruling class, their practice of domination, the tyranny of the ‘great ones.’ Oh but this is not so among you!’
“[Mark] has proved repeatedly that the disciples neither ‘know’ what they want nor understand the way of Jesus.
“Now comes the final invitation to ‘whosoever’ in the discipleship catechism, imagining a new style of leadership ‘from the bottom up.’ Jesus’ role reversal between the ‘great’ one and the ‘slave’ is a direct attack on the status hierarchy of the ancient world. This completes Jesus’ challenge to conventional understandings of power: personal, social, economic, and now political. The alternative way is embodied in the Human One, who proposes to overturn the debt system once and for all by giving his life: a servant who will ‘buy back’ the lives of all who are truly enslaved.”[i]
Beloved, what is “Christian?” It has become a four-letter word that in popular usage is synonymous with punitive, stingy, narrow, judgmental, entitled. Although he does not use the word, Mark says “Christian” means forgiveness and servanthood. What does it mean to us? To us I think it means a dismantling of patriarchy and the construction of a society of mutual service. To us it implies and embodies challenge and change. To quote from our vision statement:
“Our desire is to be known for mutual respect, understanding, and inclusion.
“We follow Jesus, who offered radical hospitality to the lonely, hurting, hungry, and homeless. Come, explore this great love of God with us, and work beside us to transform the world.”
I close with this reflection from Bishop Steven Charleston, a retired Episcopal bishop and academic, and Native American of the Choctaw people.
“We are here for the long haul, we veterans of the sacred struggle. We may be a little dirty and a little tired and a little outnumbered by the powers against which we contend, but we are not giving up, running away or seeking to surrender. We are here for a cause we will not abandon, for people we will not abandon. The hungry and the homeless, the refugee and the immigrant, the poor and the forgotten, the innocent and the vulnerable: we make this stand for them and we will not betray their hopes. We are here for the Earth, for the life of creation, for the future of our children, and we are not going anywhere until justice is secure. We are here for as long as it takes.”[ii]
Now that is Christian.